Dr. Khaled Fattah, left, recently answered questions from ASEN intern Sonia Morland on behalf of SEN Journal. Dr. Fattah is a guest lecturer at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He holds a PhD in international relations from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He is often quoted in international media as an expert of Yemen and state-tribe relations in the Arab world.
What would you say were the underlying and proximate causes of the current protests in Yemen?
Dr. Fattah: The roots of the popular uprising in Yemen are related to economic, political and security grievances. Yemen is the poorest Arab state, with the worst economic and human development indicators in the region. The country has one of the most explosive population growth rates, the highest youth unemployment rates, and it’s one of the most food- and water-insecure entities in the world. An estimated 43 percent of its rapidly growing population lives below the poverty line. Political grievances, on the other hand, include rampant corruption, exclusion, abuse of power and stagnation. This daunting set of economic and political problems is compounded by serious security crises. During the last decade, the map of Yemen became dotted with pockets of violence and civil unrest in the eastern, northern and southern parts of the country. Each of these pockets created its own orbit of conflicts, public distrust and deep social grievances.
Yemen is a divided country in which, according to numbers by Integrated Regional Information Networks (www.irinnews.org), violent ethnic conflict claims the lives of approximately 2,000 people every year. How, if at all, would you say that interethnic tensions factor into the current protests?
Dr. Fattah: In Yemen, ethnicity is not a yardstick of measurement. Instead, tribal, regional and sectarian identifications make the borders of Yemen’s socio-cultural map. These three main levels of identifications shape the ordering of loyalties and the understanding of Yemenis of their positions in the social and political structures. However, these divisions are politicized, transformative and highly contextual. For example, in the Shiite Zaydi militant insurgency in the northern province of Sa’ada, known as al-Houthi rebellion, which has been on and off since June 2004 and resulted in thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, tribal, sectarian and regional levels of identification were overlapping and blurred. It is important to keep in mind that Yemen is plagued with violence that goes beyond sectarian violence and the al-Qaeda threat. Disputes over land and water resources claim the lives of approximately 4,000-5,000 people every year. Scarcity, resource depletion and collapsing national economy are the main pipelines for feeding conflicts and instability in Yemen.
Closely related to the previous question, how relevant do you believe ethnic cleavages to be not only in the current protests but also the future political development of Yemen?
Dr. Fattah: Regardless of the orientations and interests of the internal and external actors involved in finding an exit to the current dilemma in Yemen, no restoration of order and diffusion of tension can take place without addressing the grievances which fuel instability and violence. One of the best scenarios under discussion is the introduction of a federal system that promotes political, economic and social empowerment at the local level. The scenario also includes opening the labour market in the Gulf region for accommodating Yemeni workforce. Worth mentioning here is that during the months of Yemen’s uprising, being a Yemeni has been an emotional and intimate experience that is more powerful than sub-national identities.
When we refer to the ‘Arab Spring’, are we generalising the complex problems individual to each Arab country which have recently erupted in protest?
Dr. Fattah: Yes, indeed. The media has been treating the ‘Arab Spring’ in a snapshot fashion, which is in my view a simplified, reductionist and crude generalisation. The ‘revolutions’ in the Arab world are not a duplication of those that took place in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. Each uprising in the Arab Middle East has its own historical, socio-cultural, economic, strategic and political contextual particularities and consequences.
Is there any lesson policy-makers and scholars can draw from the current developments in Yemen with regards to favourable or unfavourable conditions for democracy and democratisation in ethnically diverse societies?
Dr. Fattah: There is one important lesson to learn from the ‘Arab Spring’, which is listening to what the massive young generation in the region have to say. Reaching out to the Arab youth should be a priority for bridging the present and future relations between the western world and the Arab world. As for Yemen, no transition to democracy and socio-economic recovery can take place without addressing the structural root-causes of the security crisis.
Read more on state-tribe relations and Yemen’s unrest in the forthcoming issue of SEN 11(3) (link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/resolve/doi?DOI=10.1111/(ISSN)1754-9469 )